As of a couple of weeks ago, Barbara and I are official members of the Portuguese Permanent Residents Club, with membership cards and everything. At the risk of violating security, I’m going to reveal the Portuguese secret handshake, which is to kiss each other on both cheeks for women, and for men to, well, shake hands. There’s also a secret password, which is to shout “Olá! Boa tarde!” at the top of one’s voice to everyone you pass on the street. You don’t actually pronounce the “e” at the end of the word “tarde”; you get to the “d” and then kind of let your mouth flop open for the time it would take to pronounce the “e” if you were going to do it. Which you’re not.
To get official status, we had to assemble approximately ten kilograms of paper attesting to various aspects of our existence. Not surprisingly, the Portuguese government surprisingly wants assurance we have enough income to not be a drag on the economy, aren’t fugitives from justice in our own country, and are capable of walking across the street without stopping in the middle having forgotten where we were going and thus holding up traffic.
On the other hand, it’s questionable how much of the material we were required to provide really told them anything. For instance, we had to prove how long we’ve been here and that we came when we said we would on our original visa application, which we had to get in the USA before coming here so we could apply for a residency permit when we got here. In other words, we had to get a permit to apply for a permit. Get it?
Anyway, you’d think the fact that we were standing there in person would be sufficient proof that we were actually in the country and had been here at least as long as it took to find our way to the office. But no, Portugal wanted proof on paper.
There was also a place to check on the application form that we had demonstrated Portuguese language skills. I get that one, but here again, we were standing there speaking English because we didn’t know a word of Portuguese. At least, I don’t know a word of Portuguese. We’ve been taking language lessons together but, so far, Barbara’s the only one of us to have benefited. She’s picked up the language quite well, while I can only say two things in Portuguese – “Does anyone in this place speak English?” and “Antonio’s mother is a pineapple.” If I don’t get a response from the first one, I go for the second. It’s a real conversation starter.
Turns out, it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter whether we could ask where the restroom is or how much our dinner cost or if this was the bus to Lisbon. It only mattered that we had receipts from the language school we attend. If we couldn’t speak the language, at least we had invested money in the local education system. Had some skin in the game, so to speak.
Therefore, whenever the interviewer asked a question in Portuguese, Barbara answered it while I held the receipt up in front of my face like a talisman and muttered my two sentences. I have no idea what anyone said in response but apparently it was acceptable to the government of Portugal.
One part of the application process that gives me a macabre kind of glee is the requirement for health insurance. The regulations say you need coverage up to 30,000 euros, not for actual medical care but for repatriation of physical remains. That is to say, if you die while in the country, they want to know there’s money to ship your body back where you came from.
Portugal must be afraid they don’t have enough room to dispose of all the dead bodies who pile upon their shores, so they want to make sure your former nationality will take your corpse back. My question is, what happens if they don’t want you back? After all, they have their own dead bodies to deal with, and they’re all people who didn’t try to go somewhere else. Why should they bother with a cadaver of someone who insulted their own homeland by leaving it?
I wonder if there’s maybe a special insurance policy to have your carcass dumped overboard from one of the fishing boats that go out to sea every morning. I bet the fishermen would go for a chance like that to make a little money on the side, or actually it would be over the side. I don’t think a policy like that would need to be anything like €30,000. There’d be plenty left over for your relatives to throw a really good party.
Anyway, we carried to the appointment a backpack of paper sufficient to keep a home furnace going for a winter evening, only to realize that, other than our passports and current bank statements, the substance of it all wasn’t really the point. We could have carried a few reams of blank paper for all the interest anyone showed in it.
No, as it turns out, the point of the exercise is the exercise itself. Or to put it more accurately, the obstacle course. Or to put it even more accurately, the trial by endurance. It seems the Portuguese government is sensitive about their residency. They want to believe that you really, really care about them, that you love Portugal enough to go to that much trouble to convince them.
Fortunately, we had already some warning of what to expect — when we opened a bank account, when we bought our internet plan, when we got the certificate from the city clerk verifying that we were living in the town. Every aspect of life in Portugal, in the public sector or the private, is bureaucratized. Whether you purchase utilities or apply for any license or certificate, be prepared to wait. The key word to life in Portugal is “patience.” The key action to being seen at all is “take a number.”
Our scheduled appointment for the interview was at 10:30 AM. Understand however, that an appointment in Portugal is not an appointment for the interview itself; it is rather an appointment to begin waiting for the interview. The process begins with trying to find the SEF office. SEF is short for Serviço De Estrangeiros E Fronteiras, but everyone just calls it SEF for obvious reasons. You’d think a department with such an impressive name would be housed in an equally impressive facility. No such luck.
When we got to where it was supposed to be we found ourselves in front of what looked like an abandoned building. There was no sign; the only way we guessed we were in the right place was the number of people going in and out. The government seemed to be trying to hide the place, perhaps to test our powers of apperception. Or maybe they were ashamed of it. They certainly had a right to be ashamed of it, considering what a dump the place was.
You know that color you sometimes see that’s actually a non-color? If you remember it after seeing it, you think it was kind of a pink, but then you think about it again and this time you remember it as gray; and the next time it’s brown; but you’re never really certain what color it is? Well, that’s the color of the SEF office. It may have been an actual color at one time but certainly well before the office was commandeered to represent the people of Portugal.
Walking into the building we faced a waiting room crammed full of people who were, in fact, waiting. The lucky ones had chairs, of which there was a shortage; the rest leaned against a long shelf built into the wall. They all had a kind of vacant slack-jawed expression on their faces, suggesting they’d been there awhile.
When I use the word “we”, I’m including our dear friend Mario, husband of our real estate agent Paula. Since we arrived in Portugal three months previously, Mario and Paula had devoted an heroic amount of time, the cumulative equivalent of several days, helping us get settled. Never having laid eyes on us before and knowing nothing about us, they have nevertheless treated us like members of their family.
Besides finding us the apartment we’d stayed in since coming to Setúbal, they gave up a day of their lives to drive to Lisbon to pick us up so we wouldn’t have to wrestle our baggage on the train to get here. Then Mario accompanied us on the aforementioned trips to the bank and Internet service offices. Most recently, they both went with us to the local city clerk’s office, known as the Junta Freguesia, to vouch that we were residents of the city so we could get a certificate to that effect, which we needed for today’s interview. Additionally, Paula and Mario have given us advice, helped us find services and provided us with critical items of information to help us find our way around.
Mario is a master at waiting. Each of these trips took the better part of a work day, and he steadfastly stayed by our side through each of them. He interpreted for us and guided us through the process each time; without his help we would never have survived up till now. His assistance proved critical to getting us through this day.
Barbara and I were certainly the only Americans there that day, but there were a number of expatriates from other countries and spouses of Portuguese nationals seeking residency. Several were from Serbia, Croatia and the Ukraine. Now that Brexit is in the works, there’s also a wave of folks from the UK who want to remain in the European Union. And always, there’s a steady stream of Brazilians coming in.
The majority of people that day were African, with the exception of one Chinese couple and their baby. Like other Western European countries, Portugal’s history is closely intertwined with Africa. Its former African colonies include Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and the islands of Sao Tome and Principe.
THE HISTORY PART
Herein lies a coin with a couple of sides. It should be noted that Portugal pretty much invented African slavery some five hundred years ago. They learned about slavery from the Arabs who invaded them in the 700’s.
The Portuguese were the first great European explorers and world colonizers. In addition to Africa and South America, they established footholds in Macao on the Chinese subcontinent and Goa on the Indian. The problem was that Portugal has always been a very small country. Their ambition outstripped their ability to govern their colonies. Supposedly, they adopted slavery from the Arabs because they didn’t have enough of their own people to develop their lands and operate their plantations.
Having perfected the practice of capturing, stealing, transporting and enslaving millions of human lives, they spread the disease to the rest of Europe and from there to the infant United States. The former Portuguese colony of Brazil was the last country in the world to abolish slavery in 1888. Students of the American Civil War know that, following the defeat of the Confederacy, a number of Southerners emigrated to Brazil and established enclaves where they could once again live as slaveholders. Their descendants, with American last names, still live there.
Observing the number of Africans that day in the SEF office, Mario related another side to Portuguese colonial history. Portugal, also transported convicts to its colonies to work the plantations. In time, they initiated a policy whereby when a convict married an African slave, both partners gained their freedom and Portuguese citizenship. Moreover, people born in the former colonies are now and will continue to be, Portuguese citizens.
When we in North America talk about “Africans” we’re typically thinking about black faces. In Portugal, however, we’ve met plenty of whites who consider themselves African. These people are descended from the original European colonizers of those countries, born and brought up in Africa. When the Salazar dictatorship finally folded in 1976, the government that followed liberated all those colonies in one dramatic measure.
The downside of that liberation was a period of chaos in which half a million European Africans were transported to Portugal leaving livelihoods, farms and homes behind. We’ve met several people our age who adamantly insist they’re African rather than Portuguese or European. A deep sadness comes over their faces when they talk about the homes they lost, and they speak wistfully about the beauty of their home country.
By the way, the first freely elected prime minister of Portugal, Mario Soares, recently died at age 92. He was a leftist lawyer who defied the Salazar regime for many years, was imprisoned several times and was constantly in danger of his life during that period. The day of his funeral was one of national mourning.
So, when we got to the SEF, we were given a number to be called, which turned out to be for only the first step in that day’s entertainment, triagem (same root as the medical term “triage”). When our number was projected up on a screen after about an hour, a clerk reviewed our documents and fired off a series of questions. The questions, in the great tradition of bureaucratic nonsense, turned out to be about things already answered on the documents themselves. For example, on our financial statements, she asked whether the numbers were in dollars or euros. With Mario’s assistance, we pointed out that the numbers with the symbol $ by them were in dollars and the ones with € in euros. We were only able to deal with this because Mario was there to help. If it hadn’t been for him, we’d have been left at the gate. For our part, when we were called, we asked our usual question, “Você fala inglés?”, only to be met with a stony silence.
Consider, here we were in the official immigration office of the Portuguese government, charged with processing travelers from a host of foreign countries speaking several languages that don’t happen to be Portuguese, and the clerk didn’t speak English – or for that matter, French or Spanish or Ukrainian or Mandarin or any other language.
Mario was furious. He muttered angrily about the absurdity of the situation and indignantly proclaimed about the clerk, “She doesn’t even speak good Portuguese!” He proceeded into an imitation of her, caving his lips in and making sounds that ranged somewhere between a choking gargle and “vushvushvushvushv.” He finished off by exclaiming in a loud voice, “I can’t understand her!”
THE LONG WAIT
Mario’s outburst did our hearts good by telling us we weren’t the only linguistically challenged people there. However, we were a little concerned he was drawing too much attention to us. After all, we were dealing with a bureaucracy and the cardinal rule of a bureaucracy is —
Rule # 1: DON’T STAND OUT IF YOU WANT TO SURVIVE!
We were presenting ourselves to the Portuguese government, throwing ourselves on its goodwill, assuring them we would be peaceful and upstanding citizens of the country; and the one person we had brought along to support our claim was turning into a raging madman right before our eyes.
We slunk back into the waiting room, crouched on a bench in a corner and started speculating about whether we’d get to visit some other parts of Europe before the EU deported us back to the United States. I’ve always wanted to see Malta; since it’s an island nation far away from the rest of the world maybe we could make it there before word of our humiliation reached them. Then, of course, there’s Italy, where, if our experience living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the world’s second largest Italian city, is any indication, nobody would stop yelling at each other long enough to notice us. That was probably as far as we could get before we were arrested, put in chains and shoved onto a prison scow heading for the Americas.
To our great relief, it must have been that the Triagem clerk followed another standing rule of bureaucracy –
Rule # 2: WHEN THEY START COMPLAINING, IGNORE THEM AND THEY WILL GO AWAY.
Any professional bureaucrat knows that if you don’t follow Rule # 2, you run the risk of violating Rule # 1; ergo, don’t do it. I guess Mario knows it, too, just one more reason why he’s the guy to have on your side in this situation.
He handed us a second number slip with the number preceded by a “D”. The Triagem clerk had written “D” on our application, but we had no idea what it meant. From Mario, we discovered that “D” signified the category of the desk where we were supposed to go next, and we had to take a number for that category and wait once again in line.
No one at Triagem had said a word about this. If it hadn’t been for Mario, we would’ve sat there in that waiting room until they threw us out at the end of the day. We could’ve sat there until we shriveled up into nothing but our dried out carcasses and nobody would have mentioned anything about it. Our desicated skeletons would become part of the décor, only noticed by small children, the only people in this day and age who pay attention to things that don’t make sense.
(Said in Portuguese) “Mommy, why are those things taking up room on that bench?”
“Shhh. Just ignore them. That’s what happens to Americans from eating too many Pop Tarts.”
Good thing we had our repatriation insurance. However, thanks to Mario, we had a number that entitled us to stay in the queue and hopefully get out alive.
So we waited. And waited.
We assumed the same vacant expressions as those we saw when we first came in, and began watching the clock to see how long each person ahead of us took so we could guess when we’d be going in. Around midday, it looked like we might make it in a half an hour or so, and be released in time to actually have some of our day left.
We waited another fifteen minutes. It wouldn’t be long now. More minutes passed. We got ready to be called. But nobody called us.
Nothing was happening. Somehow, things were stalled. Just our luck the applicant ahead of us must’ve had some problem they were trying to resolve. Still and all, it couldn’t be long now.
But it was. Suddenly we realized, They had all gone to lunch!
There were no replacements for the morning shift, nor any staggered lunch breaks so the office would continue doing its job. The whole place stopped working. Nobody said anything, made any announcements, expressed any apologies to the people waiting. We all just sat there while the bureaucrats went out for their daily dinner of grilled fish with wine. If any of us left to get dinner for ourselves, there was a security guard there to make sure we lost our turn.
In this way, we endured, proving we were worthy of being interviewed by a funcionario of the Portuguese government. And all this time, Mario, our hero, sat there with us as if to show us how waiting in Portugal is done properly.
We copied his every move. When he sat back in his chair, we sat back. When he sat up, we sat up. When he shook his head in disgust, we shook our heads in disgust.
Then, after an hour or so, suddenly numbers appeared on the screen summoning people into the office. A charge of electricity went through the room. People sat up and blinked awake.
Finally, after four hours waiting in the black hole of SEF, we were summoned to the inner cloister. Because Barbara had the number ahead of me, they sat down with her and sent me out of the office, even though we were applying as a couple. So, I waited another fifteen minutes, but by the time I was called, they had decided to input the same data for me as for her.
The good thing about when we were called in was that all the funcionarios, with a good dinner and plenty of vinho under their belts, were in very good moods, smiling and laughing at their own fallibilities, trying out their few word of English on us. I didn’t ask Barbara for details of what they said to her – I didn’t want to know – but we could have been international counterfeiters there to ruin the Portuguese economy, for all anyone cared by that time. They stamped our applications, gave us forms to sign, stood us up in front of the photo machine, and sent us to wait to pay our application fee.
The interview took twenty minutes tops after four hours and fifteen minutes spent waiting. It should be clear which part of the immigration process the government considered most important. We had proven we could wait, which qualified us for Portuguese residency because any time in future we need to do anything official we’ll have to go through the same thing.
For us, all was forgiven, We had passed the test and were ready to get out of there. However, we had to wait a little longer while Mario went on another crusade. It seems there’s supposed to be a system of priorities for being called for interviews. I was actually supposed to have priority by virtue of being over 65. Worse, Mario had spoken with several women who had small children there, one of whom was currently in the last couple of months of pregnancy, and they were definitely entitled to priority.
He launched into a diatribe neither Barbara nor I could follow but was clearly taking the entire office staff and no doubt the entire Portuguese government to task for making those women wait in contravention of the law. He was quite eloquent and entirely fearsome as a bastion of righteous indignation.
Barbara and I, not wanting to queer the deal we’d just made to be residents of the country, slipped out as quickly as we could so as not to have our status rescinded before we even made it out of the office. We huddled outside until Mario, head held high, face shining with gallantry, sword flashing, bronze helmet capturing the sunlight, joined us proudly on the street. Indeed, he is a hero and a champion, and we are proud and grateful to know him. I say again, we couldn’t have done it without him.
We received our residency cards in the mail a week later and almost immediately benefited by having them. We went to our favorite restaurant , Baluarte da Avenida, and showed them to Michael the owner, a Portuguese citizen brought up in Canada before coming home. When it came time to pay, I handed him my credit card.
“What, don’t you have cash?” He’d never asked this before.
I must have looked confused. He exclaimed with a broad smile on his face, “You’re Portuguese, now. Locals get a 10% discount for cash.”
We made €2,50 off the deal. It had all been worthwhile,